Mariel Hemingway – Outdistancing Suicide, Papa’s Family Curse
Running from Crazy is a 2013 television documentary film by director Barbara Kopple about the family of Mariel Hemingway, grand daughter of Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway. Through the eyes of Mariel, who received an Oscar nomination for her role in Woody Allen‘s 1979 film Manhattan, and who has spoken for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention,it chronicles the story of three of the author’s grandchildren; Mariel, Margaux Hemingway and Joan “Muffet” Hemingway, daughters of Jack Hemingway, and their struggles with the family history of substance abuse, mental illness and suicide. First shown at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, the documentary was promoted on the Oprah Winfrey Network, which aired its premiere on April 27, 2014.
The up-close-and-personal promise of cinéma vérité in the 1960s could be exploited in a number of ways. Some documentaries explored ordinary life as a subject (“Salesman,” “High School”), but just as often they orbited stars (Bob Dylan in “Don’t Look Back,” John F. Kennedy in “Primary”). The career of the award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple has intriguingly spanned this spectrum, as she has both risked her life to chronicle a miners strike in the 1976 stone-cold classic, “Harlan County, U.S.A.,” and watched Woody Allen quip about hotel laundry service in “Wild Man Blues” (1998).
All of that might sound like ancient history in this exhaustive (and exhausting) era of the reality show, which would be one way of mislabeling Ms. Kopple’s latest film, “Running From Crazy.” Instead, this heart-wrenching and deceptively conventional documentary manages the tensions in its subject and in the vérité approach in a fruitful, illuminating and surprisingly moving way. The subject is Mariel Hemingway, and the film, commissioned by Oprah Winfrey’s OWN cable channel, outwardly belongs to the genre of celebrity confessional, seemingly striking its balance of exposure and recognition of a cause or affliction.
“Tall blonde, no problems,” Ms. Hemingway says early on, acknowledging one possible dismissal. But the legacy she inherited is twofold. It’s a matter of famous ancestry and also of mental-health challenges: The suicide of her paternal grandfather, Ernest Hemingway, was only one of several in the family, and the issue (despite a glib phrase in circulation, “the Hemingway curse”) is not romanticized here.
Ms. Kopple follows Ms. Hemingway while she visits with her family; gives speeches about mental health or her stabilizing wellness regime; and pursues ultimate workouts with a male companion. But the film keeps doubling back, through archival footage, to the painful trajectory of her high-flying sister Margaux, a brash model who committed suicide in 1996, and to the alcohol-fueled rancor of her parents.
Ms. Kopple skillfully deploys Ms. Hemingway’s awkward attempts at heart-to-hearts as illustrations of relationships and stations in life. Ms. Hemingway’s daughters, Dree and Langley, enjoy success yet make tellingly different acknowledgments in the film about both parts of their legacy. And an excruciatingly pleasant reunion with Ms. Hemingway’s other sister, the often-institutionalized Joan (a.k.a. Muffet), says more in what goes unvoiced about distance, resentment and guilt.
“Running From Crazy” — the title is Ms. Hemingway’s phrasing — doesn’t entirely escape the dangers of the confessional profile. But Ms. Kopple shows how people in Ms. Hemingway’s position, with a family history of mental-health problems, confront a foreboding mirror, whether or not it also reflects a literary heritage and a Kennedy-grade bone structure.